ST. PETERSBURG — A collective sigh of relief greeted the news last year that Bill Edwards, a local self-made millionaire, had bought the near empty BayWalk shopping and entertainment complex.
"I think (BayWalk's) prospects are wonderful," Mayor Bill Foster said shortly before Edwards' purchase was made official in September. "I've talked with Edwards. We did some brainstorming about the property, nothing concrete. But he's got a really good vision."
Six months after Edwards bought the property for $5.2 million — about $3 million less than its initial sale price — the vision of the complex remains as vague as it was under the previous owners, which included a group of out-of-town investors, CW Capital Asset Management.
Aside from a fresh coat of paint and a new architectural rendering that was unveiled Thursday at City Hall, little has changed — at least publicly — with Edwards at the helm. BayWalk is even more empty since Edwards bought it. Two weeks ago, Tokyo Sushi Cafe closed after more than a decade at the complex.
In a 20-minute presentation to the City Council, Edwards repeated his desire to turn the 74,500 square-foot complex into a destination shopping and dining hot spot.
He and Joe Jimenez, managing director of the Edwards Group, told council members and Foster that they spent "four to five days" last week in New York City meeting with retailers and restaurateurs who are interested in leasing space at BayWalk. Before that trip, many of the same prospects were flown by Edwards and put up in the Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club to scout out the area and property, Jimenez said.
Edwards said they were able to persuade "three iconic chefs" to put three different types of food in the complex, with one of the types being an "iconic" steak house.
"You'll recognize the names when we announce them," Edwards said.
But neither Edwards nor Jimenez, when pressed after the presentation, would say which retailers or chefs they spoke with in New York.
"We're going to hold off on announcing anything," Edwards said. "There will be a press conference when we're ready."
It's not clear what commitment the three chefs have made to Edwards. Asked if anyone has signed a contract, Edwards said that contracts are being prepared.
Edwards did say he wanted to limit the number of bars and restaurants at BayWalk to three.
"We don't want to compete with Beach Drive," Edwards said, referring to the popular stretch down the street. "We're going to put in ladies' clothing, men's clothing, shoes. Stuff you can't buy downtown, that you have to go to the mall to buy."
The current location for the retailer White House Black Market is a 689-square-foot building that Edwards said will be demolished in the next month. The conceptual drawing, which Edwards said wasn't final, showed the complex as an open-air courtyard with the building gone.
White House Black Market and Chicos will stay at BayWalk and move to new locations, Edwards said.
The build-out and grand opening for the new BayWalk, which will have a new name that has yet to be announced, will be in 12 to 13 months, Edwards said.
When CW Capital owned the complex, announcements of delayed "grand openings" drew complaints from council members and Foster, who said they were growing impatient that one of downtown's key properties remained empty. But on Thursday, council members gushed when told of the 2013 grand opening. Edwards, who won a contract last year to operate the city's Mahaffey Theater, was doing just fine, they said.
"We've gotten these reports over the last few years, and this is different than the last few we've had," said Jeff Danner. "Great vision, and wow. Look forward to seeing it happen."
"What a blessing it is to have you here," Bill Dudley said.
Jimenez said afterward that it has been "difficult" getting tenants. It has been an education and learning process, he said, getting familiar with marketing the property and getting prospects interested.
Edwards said he already has had two offers to flip the property to another buyer, but refused them. He said it just takes time to find the right mix of tenants that will work long term.
"I could have already filled that place with stores," Edwards said.
That's the same explanation representatives of the previous owner gave when explaining why BayWalk was empty. What makes Edwards different?
"We know how to find them," he said. "We know what we're doing."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8037